17:20 Friday 12th July 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[C]HRIS MANN: As the Government slashes local government budgets by another 10%, our local authorities are facing tough decisions. They’re being told at the same time to keep council tax the same, so they have to make cuts. But where to make them? Services, public transport, roads, care, schools, libraries? Many have already frozen pay and cut jobs. Sharing backroom operations with other councils is already the norm. One council facing such choices is East Cambridgeshire District. based in Ely. It’s rural, but fast growing. 80,000 people. 250 square miles. Right now they’re carrying out a root and branch analysis to try and answer those questions. And the Council Leader, the new Council Leader, is James Palmer, who’s a milkman from Soham, from the Conservative Party. And he joins me now. James, hello to you.
JAMES PALMER: Good afternoon.
CHRIS MANN: Big problems, big decisions to make, to decide the future. Where do you cut the cost?
JAMES PALMER: Well it’s more than looking at savings and cuts. I know it’s perhaps a political metaphor, but frankly cutting just means that you’re not really concentrating on what you’re doing. You’re looking at it in a cheap way. We’re trying to be more sensible than that. We’re trying to look at the Council and what we can improve, what can be done better, and where savings can be made. And that’s why we’re looking at it from bottom to top, from top to bottom, in every service that we provide.
CHRIS MANN: That’s political talk for cuts, isn’t it, and cutbacks? However you like to explain it, you haven’t got more money, and you’re not adding on new things, are you?
JAMES PALMER: I don’t particularly like to be accused of political talk. I try to talk more straight, or more common sense than that. The facts are very simple. We cannot afford to carry on doing what we’ve always done. We have to be savvy and sensible. That does mean that some areas will be looked at, and some non-statutory parts of our council will not survive.
CHRIS MANN: That means that the things that you don’t have to legally, and are obliged to do.
JAMES PALMER: That’s absolutely right. Of course.
CHRIS MANN: The non-essentials.
JAMES PALMER: Yes.
CHRIS MANN: What would they be? What are you looking at? What do you think might go?
JAMES PALMER: I can’t say, because we’ve got somebody in to look at it. We’ve got outside people in. I think that’s the most sensible thing to do. This might not (be) my job as a councillor to point at particular people and say, not you and you, or you and you. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure the budget is met, and to make sure future Councils don ‘t have the problems that we are facing now.
CHRIS MANN: At the same time you’re trying to deal with the fact that your area is growing in population. You’ve ambitions. I know you want to have a railway station again at Soham. You’ve got the Ely by-pass, and all the other things like that, and trying to get new business and new jobs into the area. How do you do the two?
JAMES PALMER: Well you have to be clever, and focus on the future, and do the very best that you can. As I said, we haven’t got unlimited funds. But we’ve got unlimited energy, and desire to make sure that East Cambridgeshire District Council is run as leanly and as sensibly and with as much focus as we possibly can.
CHRIS MANN: East Cambs of course was formed I think back in the 80s?
JAMES PALMER: I think it was formed in 1974.
CHRIS MANN: 70s to 80s.
JAMES PALMER: Neither you or I could possibly remember that.
CHRIS MANN: Three local councils were amalgamated to make it.
JAMES PALMER: That’s correct.
CHRIS MANN: You have around you other smaller councils, smaller areas relatively small areas like South Cambs. You’ve got Fenland of course. And you’ve got Cambridge City Council. Might an amalgamation with one or other of those be a possibility in the future?
JAMES PALMER: We don’t see it as a possibility at the moment. I’m not in a position yet to talk to other councils until I’m confident that we have got our own house in the order that I want it to be. When I feel that we are lean and we are well run .. well I know we’re well run, but when we are lean and as cost-effective as we possibly can be, we can certainly look at sharing services with other councils. We’re not in a position yet to discuss mergers.
CHRIS MANN: Do you think a unitary authority might happen in the future?
JAMES PALMER: Well unitary authorities aren’t for me to decide. The direction comes from central government. And it may well be that that is the future, but it’s certainly not in my remit at the moment.
CHRIS MANN: Ok. Looking ahead ten, twenty years, how is East Cambs going to change?
JAMES PALMER: Well, as you’ve mentioned, we’re a growth area. People want to live in East Cambridgeshire, and they’re right to want to live there. It’s a fantastic place to live. We’re looking to, as you say, bring in a railway station in Soham. The A141 by-pass at Ely will be built. And we’re looking to make sure that those people who’ve come to live in East Cambridgeshire get the best possible experience that they can. And with our drive and determination I’m sure they will.
CHRIS MANN: What makes you, a milkman from Soham. want to get involved in local politics and have headaches like this James?
JAMES PALMER: Well it gives me something else to do.
CHRIS MANN: (LAUGHS)
JAMES PALMER: You get out of bed in the morning and then the rest of the day is your own, so it gives me a focus in the daytime.
CHRIS MANN: Thank you for joining us.
JAMES PALMER: It’s been a pleasure.
CHRIS MANN: James Palmer, the relatively new Leader of East Cambs District Council.